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“The fact that you are willing to sacrifice yourself for the people is exactly why they need you here.” His eyes stared deeply into mine. “You need to be here. We all need you.”

Swallowing hard, I lowered my eyes. My cheeks felt flushed, and I hated that simply talking to Finn could do this to me.

“Elora’s inside waiting,” he said quietly.

“Thank you.” I nodded, and without looking at him, I opened the door and slipped inside her office.

I’d never been in the Queen’s private study before, but it was about the same as her other offices. Lots of bookshelves, a giant oak desk, and a velvet chaise lounge poised in front of the windows. A painting of Elora hung on one wall, and from the looks of the brushstrokes, I’d guess it was a self-portrait.

Elora sat at her desk, a stack of papers spread out before her. She had an ivory dip pen in her hand, complete with an inkwell to dip it in, and she held it perilously over the papers, as if afraid of what she might sign.

She hadn’t lifted her head yet, and her black hair hung around her face like a curtain, so I wasn’t sure if she knew I was there.

“Elora, I need to talk to you.” I walked toward her desk.

“So I’ve been told. Spit it out. I don’t have much time today.” She looked up at me, and I almost gasped.

I’d never seen her look haggard before. Her normally flawless skin appeared to have aged and wrinkled overnight. She had defined creases on her forehead that hadn’t been there yesterday. Her dark eyes had gone slightly milky, like early cataracts. A streak of white hair ran down the center of her part, and I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed it when I first came in.

“Princess, really.” Elora sighed, sounding irritated. “What do you want?”

“I wanted to talk to you about Lo—uh, the Vittra Markis,” I stumbled.

“I think you’ve already said quite enough on that.” She shook her head, and a drop of ink slipped off the pen onto the desk.

“I don’t think you should execute him,” I said, my voice growing stronger.

“You made your feelings perfectly clear, Princess.”

“It doesn’t make sense, policywise,” I went on, refusing to let this go. “Killing him will only incite more Vittra attacks.”

“The Vittra aren’t going to stop whether we execute the Markis or not.”

“Exactly!” I said. “We don’t need to antagonize them. Too many people have died over this already. We don’t need to add anyone else to the death toll.”

“I can’t keep him prisoner for much longer,” Elora said. Then, in a rare moment of honesty, her façade slipped for a minute, and I saw how truly exhausted she was. “What I’m using to hold him is … it’s draining me.”

“I’m sorry,” I said simply, unsure how to respond to her admittance of frailty.

“It should please Your Young Majesty to know that I’m right now searching for a solution,” Elora said, sounding particularly bitter when she referred to me as Majesty.

“What are you planning to do?” I asked.

“I’m looking over past treaties.” She tapped at the papers in front of her. “I’m trying to come up with an exchange agreement, so we can give back the Markis and buy ourselves some peace. I don’t know that Oren will ever stop coming after you, but we need some time before he launches another attack.”

“Oh.” I was momentarily disarmed. I hadn’t expected her to do anything to help me, or Loki. “What makes you think that Oren can mount another attack? The Vittra seem too damaged to fight right now.”

“You know nothing about the Vittra or your father,” Elora said, simultaneously weary and condescending.

“And whose fault is that?” I asked. “If I’m left in the dark about things, it’s because you’re the one who left me there. You expect me to rule this place, yet you refuse to tell me anything about it.”

“I don’t have time, Princess!” Elora snapped. When she looked at me, I could’ve sworn I saw tears in her eyes, but they disappeared before I could be certain. “I want so much to tell you everything, but I don’t have time! You’re on a need-to-know basis. I wish that it could be different, but this is the world that we live in.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Why don’t you have time?”

“I don’t even have time for this discussion.” Elora shook her head and waved me off. “You have much you need to do, and I have a meeting in ten minutes. If you want me to save your precious Markis, I suggest you get on your way and let me do my job.”

I lingered in front of her desk for a moment longer before I realized I had nothing more to say to her. For once, Elora was on my side, and she didn’t plan to execute Loki. It would actually be better if I left before I ended up saying something that would change her mind.

I expected to find Finn waiting in the hall to take me to my room, but instead I saw Tove. He leaned against the wall, absently rolling an orange between his hands.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“It’s nice to see you too,” Tove said dryly.

“No, I mean, I wasn’t expecting you.”

“I was coming to see you anyway, so I let Finn go.” Tove smirked and shook his head.

“Am I supposed to train today?” I asked. I enjoyed training with Tove, but he’d thought it best that I take a day or two off so I didn’t get burned out.